No, but really: Can Henrique Capriles defeat Chavismo?

I asked that question — Can Henrique Capriles defeat Chavismo? — back in February.

Today, the Toque de Diana blared at 3 a.m. throughout the country, signaling that Venezuelans will go to the polls to decide whether to reelect Hugo Chávez (pictured above, top) for another term in office after 14 years or to elect Capriles (pictured above, below), the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, to the presidency, but I think the answer is just as unclear right now, hours away from the close of polls, as it was in February.

There have been so many pieces out there this week that describe the state of the race, and an excellent blog that can give you more detailed analysis of the Venezuelan presidential race.  There’s no doubt that Capriles has run a very smart and energetic campaign, and that the race is essentially the first truly contested presidential election since Chávez took power.

But as we get word of results tonight, there are three sets of questions to keep in mind — first, about the election itself; second, about Venezuela if Capriles wins; and finally, about Venezuela if Chávez wins.

First, the election:

What to make of Venezuelan polling? Polls have been all over the place, some showing Chávez locked in a tight race and others showing him winning in a landslide.  Given that Venezuela’s democratic institutions are a standard deviation lower in quality than, say, Peru or other countries in South America, to say nothing as compared to the United States or the European Union, it’s safe to say that we can’t rely much on polls or exit polls to show us too many insights on the Venezuelan result.

How will we even know that the result is accurate? There are no international observers, and Chávez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) controls many of the levers of government.  If Chávez wins by just a small margin, there’s really no way to know whether the result will have been valid or whether.

As Lara state goes, so goes Venezuela?

If Chávez wins:

Will he be able to convince those who voted for his opponent that the election wasn’t stolen? There are large numbers of voters who clearly support Chávez, so a Chávez win would not necessarily be fraudulent.  But if it’s a close-run thing, how will Chávez respond to the inevitable claims of fraud or, potentially, any protests? In a way that respects freedom of expression or in a more autocratic manner?

Will he even live to see the end of his term?  Although Chávez looks a bit more robust these days after being treated for cancer in Cuba earlier this year, how healthy is he? We don’t know how severe his illness was earlier this year, nor do we even know what exactly the illness was.

How is the PSUV preparing for a post-Chávez era? Can chavismo survive without Chávez himself? To the extent that Chávez’s health is precarious, it’s not too early to start identifying potential successors to Chávez — vice president Elías Jaua, for example, foreign minister Nicolás Maduro, or National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, or even Adán Chávez, the president’s younger brother. But is it even possible for Chávez to pass the baton?  Even if the magic of chavismo among Venezuelan voter doesn’t necessarily come from the personal appeal of Chávez directly, can any successor hold the disparate factions of the PSUV together in the way that Chávez has?

What happens to the opposition? There’s no doubt that this time around, Capriles has had the benefit of a united and disciplined opposition in the form of the umbrella group, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) — it’s clear that the Venezuelan opposition has, for the first time since before Chávez took power, shed its conservative, elitist and reactionary tendencies.  During most of the Chávez era, the Venezuelan opposition has resembled the worst of 20th century conservatism in Latin America.  If Capriles loses, will the opposition retreat to that familiar territory? Or will it continue to build in the direction of joining a more liberal economy to the continued support for redistributive policy?

What happens to chavismo if the price of oil falls precipitously?

If Capriles wins:

Will Chávez peacefully transfer power to his opponent? Even if he does, will he leave behind so many embedded PSUV members in government (not to mention the legislature, so pliant to Chávez) that Capriles will be frustrated in his efforts to transform Venezuela’s economy into a more dynamic one? How long will it take to discover the extent of the true nature of Venezuelan finances?  Will the presence of the PSUV throughout the highly nationalized Venezuelan state provided too strong a counterpart against any potential Capriles reforms?

Can Capriles deliver? Is it even possible to bring down violent crime in the country — and especially Caracas — within a single six-year term? Can Capriles, with hostile elements embedded throughout the government and industry, transform the stream of oil revenue into a more transparent and accountable government? How soon will it take for Capriles to end the now-commonplace power blackouts throughout the country?

How will he begin to orient Venezuelan foreign policy away from supporting exclusively leftist Latin American regimes, such as Nicaragua and Cuba, and other disparate rogue governments, such as Belarus and Iran?  Will Capriles be welcomed with open arms by the United States and the European Union?  And how will he respond, given that a strong segment of the population will still remain incredibly anti-American and will have taken much pride in Chávez’s willful opposition to the United States?

Will MUD, the umbrella opposition, united mostly in its opposition to Chávez, unite behind Capriles?  Will we see a ‘normalization’ of Venezuelan politics or will Capriles veer toward his own version of post-chavismo caudillo?

What will the legacy of chavismo be?  In many ways, Capriles is in a close race with Chávez because he’s embraced the best parts of chavismo — the redistribution of wealth, the missions programs to help bring education, health care, housing and other essentials to Venezuela’s poorest — while rejecting the waste of subsidizing so many other countries and the inefficiency of bloated state institutions and the nationalization of so much industry.


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